Billie (Hayley Burnside) meets her tutor, newsman Paul (Nick Lawson), for the first time.Photos: Siggi Ragnar
May 4, 2016
In 1946, America was experiencing
a recovering post-war economy,
unemployment was at 3 percent, and
women who had joined the “Rosie the
Riveter” ranks were staying at home
to rear the first “baby boomers.” And
Garson Kanin’s comedy Born
Yesterday, a starring vehicle for
newcomer Judy Holliday, opened on
Broadway and ran for 1,642
performances. She won an Academy
Award for her reprise of the role in
the 1950 film.
It may sound dated, but the delectably
screwball play can resonate with
contemporary audiences, especially in
the near-flawless production onstage
now at The Classic Theatre. The plot
concerns a thuggish millionaire junk
dealer who has rented an expensive
hotel suite in downtown Washington
D.C., where he plans to wine, dine
and buy a senator to help him close a
huge business deal. He thinks his dumb blonde mistress may screw things up, so he hires a journalist he’s recently met to educate and refine her. She absorbs her lessons like the proverbial sponge, and when the lights begin to dawn for her, all heck breaks loose on her abusive lover.
Talented director Matthew Byron Cassi has assembled a dream cast – strong down to the smallest role – and made no noticeable changes in Kanin’s spirited dialogue. Greg Hinojosa’s Harry Brock is loud-mouthed, cruel and plainly as unrefined and possibly more dim-witted than his girlfriend, Billie Dawn. As Billie, Hayley Burnside captures the essence of Ms. Holliday’s accent and characterization, but she puts her own wacky stamp on the role. Her comic timing is masterful and she makes an art of simple gum-popping and snapping.
The audience is given a clue as to the likely outcome of Billie’s lessons during a very funny pantomimed game of gin rummy with Harry. He taught her how to play, and she goes to great lengths to shuffle, stack, rearrange and tally her cards, ad nauseam, before winning. Again and again.
Nick Lawson is purposefully low-keyed as Paul, the charming journalist who introduces Billie to the world of books and history, proper English and etiquette. Pygmalion-like, he is promptly smitten with her, of course, which adds to the amusing discord.
Byrd Bonner is completely credible as Ed Devry, Harry's boozy, wisecracking lawyer, who is smarmy yet sympathetic when it becomes clear that he hates himself for selling out to his crooked – and only – client. Chuck Wigginton makes a perfect good ol’ boy Southern senator – Harry’s mark – and Alexandra Montgomery is wonderfully snooty as his oh-so-proper wife.
The cast is rounded out with excellent work by Catie Carlisle, Ross Avant, Gabriel Sanchez, Alejandro Pesina and Bekka Broyles.
Karen Arredondo-Starr’s stadium-style set (audience on two sides of a central playing space) is truly magnificent: Vintage furniture – including a white padded-leather bar – and props, framed with gorgeous art deco side walls and painted floor by scenic artist Kendall Davila.
Diane Malone’s handsome, well-appointed period costumes feature ruffles, feathers, high-heeled mules and the like.
Rick Malone’s sound design is unobtrusive, but very effective. We loved the recording of “Cry Me a River,” played during the scene strike after Billie finally leaves a shocked, unbelieving Harry. Here, too, was an example of Mr. Cassi’s inventive staging: Harry remains on set in a follow spot while “bellhops” busily clear the area in semi-darkness. Here and throughout, lighting designer Steven Starr deserves an appreciative nod.
Today the economy is struggling and unemployment is disgracefully high, but there are plenty of Congressional shenanigans, crooked politicians and a pending election that is, well, unprecedented in many ways. Not to mention that domestic violence is still prevalent. Yep, there is a lot in Born Yesterday that remains relevant and a lot that is laugh-out-loud funny.
Greg Hinojosa as cruel loudmouth Harry Brock.
Classic Theatre / Born Yesterday
Smart blonde defeats rich vulgarian
Senator and Mrs. Hedges (Chuck Wigginton and Alexandra Montgomery).
Born Yesterday continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 3 through May 22 at The Classic Theatre, 1924 Fredericksburg Road. Call (210) 589-8450.